Landman to Head Culture at The Times, Happily

“The job was a transitional job, not that I knew that when I took it,” said Jon Landman, the deputy managing editor at The Times, who will soon be leaving behind the lead digital job at nytimes.com to become culture editor at the paper. “It was a stage, a phase in the integration. It had reached the end of its usefulness to have a separate sort of enthusiast for the Web.”

When the news was announced by executive editor Bill Keller that Mr. Landman—one of the paper’s biggest guns, and a reported finalist for the Washington Post executive editorship job last year—was being moved away from running nytimes.com and being put in charge of the culture department, it jolted the newsroom.  

“I think the newsroom did a big double take,” said one staffer.

Only a few weeks ago, Mr. Keller threw a curve ball by moving Sam Sifton, an internally celebrated editor of the culture section, into Frank Bruni’s old job as restaurant critic. Now Mr. Keller is taking one of his closest allies and pulling him off the Web to replace Mr. Sifton.

But why shift Mr. Landman, who has been in charge of integrating the newsroom and the Web team over the past four years, at a critical moment in the future of The Times, and nytimes.com?

It was a move that Mr. Landman was apparently anxious to make. 

“It wasn’t the most rewarding job for him,” said one Times editor, speaking about Mr. Landman’s job running the online operation. “You’re in lots of meetings. You’re talking about the distant future instead of talking about what’s happening for the next day or the next week or the next month. It’s a very hypothetical job. He wanted to go back to being a journalist.”

“He was frustrated by the bureaucracy,” said another editor.

“It’s certainly also true that Jon yearned to get his hands back on the stuff that drew us all into the news business in the first place,” said Mr. Keller in an email.

When we ran this all by Mr. Landman, he said, yup, that’s it.

“Every bit of that is true,” he said. “It’s all true and none of that is in conflict. My whole adult life I have been a journalist, a newspaper guy. This was definitely a detour into office politics and business things, and I found myself in conversations about business things for which I wasn’t particularly well trained and don’t have any great aptitude. Had to be done. Learned a lot. It was great. But it’s done.

“I made no secret of my frustration,” he continued.

When Mr. Landman took over the job in 2005, his mission was to convince other editors at the paper that the Web was important. The Times, unlike some other news organizations, didn’t precisely have the problem back then of trying to sell editors on the idea that the Web was relevant, but they certainly had to show them ways to embrace it. His weekly memos became a weekly exercise in exuberant cheerleading. 

But now, since the Web is a part of daily life for nearly everyone at The Times, Mr. Landman said the only way for the paper to finish the job is for Mr. Keller and managing editors Jill Abramson and John Geddes to take the reins of the Web themselves.

“Jill and I didn’t have to fully absorb digital into our responsibilities because we had the amazingly able Mr. Landman taking care of things. He’s right,” said Mr. Keller.

Beyond sitting in meetings all day—and being obligated to sending out those emails—the online job wasn’t going to lend itself to the most significant decision making, either. The Times is in the midst of serious internal debates right now over how and when to charge for the Web. Mr. Keller told his staff back in May a decision would be reached by the end of June. That hasn’t happened yet.

“The decision hasn’t been made because everything is based on assumptions, and there are many, many variables that can mean the difference between something that makes money and something that loses money,” said Mr. Keller.

Either way, Mr. Landman wasn’t going to have a big voice in that decision, which will be in the hands of Arthur Sulzberger. (According to sources, Mr. Landman and Mr. Keller haven’t seen eye-to-eye on pay walls—Mr. Landman is against them, Mr. Keller is in favor of experimenting. Despite this, it had nothing to do with Mr. Landman’s job change, we’re told).

So with little else left to do and with a job he considered complete, Mr. Landman saw the culture-section opening and jumped at it. Internally, the culture department is one of the most highly prized sections at the paper, and one of the more profitable. Jill Abramson told a crowd at the TimesCenter back in June that arts coverage—and the blog, Arts, Briefly—was the first thing she turned to in the morning—even before the business section, or The Wall Street Journal.

In many ways, Mr. Landman is being sent to the culture department to finish a job he started. There have been remarkably few department-head changes under Mr. Keller’s watch, which began in 2003. He believes that the newspaper, journalistically, is humming along. But one of the first initiatives he undertook as editor was replacing Steven Erlanger, a favorite of few, as culture editor. Mr. Landman stepped in as interim editor and immediately mucked with it. He brought in movie writer Manohla Dargis and theater critic Charles Isherwood. (Remember when people could hire!) Once he was finished with the shake-up, he stepped aside, and Mr. Sifton took over.

Now, Mr. Landman has the chance to go back and put his stamp on the paper. But he’s got company, of course.

Over on Sixth Avenue, The Wall Street Journal is in the earliest stages of planning a New York–centric culture section. Since Rupert Murdoch got his hands on the paper, he hasn’t been shy about his opinions of the Times culture section: He thinks it’s boring and lightweight, and can easily be outshined.

Might The Times have made their change in anticipation of a war with Mr. Murdoch?

“I don’t think they’re worried about Murdoch that much,” said one Times insider. “I don’t think it’s a major consideration at all. But what it does say is, it is an extremely important department. It shows they’re not going to be asleep on the switch.”

That’s because Mr. Landman is, far from a lightweight, a heavyweight at the paper. Putting him in charge was the big move.

When we asked Mr. Landman about Mr. Murdoch’s thoughts about the section, he said, “I don’t even think he believes that himself,” he said.

jkoblin@observer.com